In reading about what was troubling Thornton Wilder as he struggled to write the third act of Our Town, I stumbled onto a phrase he used to capture his inspiration. When walking with a friend in the rain, he had had a eureka moment and found a solution to his predicament in the rain itself and his friend’s discomfort in getting soaked. As he later explained, he had “struck a match” off his friend’s complaining about the wet. All of a sudden he had that spark of illumination that cleared his vision and allowed him to incorporate the rain scene into the act and to finish the play.
The disparate links that can separate but also pull and sometimes hold us together, the clues that promise but might go unnoticed, and the glances that are caught but sometimes missed are often those lit matches that explode in light for a few precious moments. They’re short lived, though, and often provide little time for action after startling us into a new awareness.
So when my wife Jody and I were caught recently in one of those moments, we began to wonder about so many “what if” questions surrounding earlier predicaments in our own lives that might have played out in different ways. Those were the moments that needed strong and powerful language to shine some bright light on what was happening right under out noses, a kind of call and response howl that could cut through the cold night air. Miss them and you might well continue to stumble along. Recognize them and you could be fortunate enough to be hurled onto the right track.
Of all times, this moment came in the middle of the night as I was reading in bed by the “headlights” of the tiny bulbs built into my glasses. Unbeknownst to me, Jody was also awake at this 3 A.M. moment but just lying there in an in-between state of sleep and awakening. When she spoke, I had just been reading a passage describing the self-indulgent and narcissistic early adulthood of a famous poet and musician we both like and admire. After reading how selfish he was at this time of his life and how he callously used and discarded a number of women for his own ends, we found ourselves wondering about ourselves at earlier incarnations in our lives.
As we talked and laughed, we floated back into situations, times seemingly so long ago, that now looked awkwardly embarrassing in the mirror of our own self recognition. How could we have behaved in such a way?
For me, there were definite stones missing in my archway and I don’t know how the edifice even stayed up let alone allowed me safe passage through. The music I was playing at the time was anything but melodious. And as I played on, I got more and more out of control, unable to keep pace with my appetites, my rushing feet running over friend, lover, and stranger alike along the path of wayward diversions.
In looking back, some of the behavior during my thirties would have appalled my idealistic post-adolescent self. Today, this behavior has become a formative memory that refuses to be forgotten.
I believe I had a lot of a 19th century Klondike gold rush settlement in me–growing, but wild, untamed, messy and more than a tad destructive. There must have been some constructive scrapings in there, too, but they were at the bottom of the pot and not especially visible, even when stirred. Fortunately, no one died and I lived through it and didn’t leave too much hide on the fence as I either went through or over it. And I like to think I grew up a wee bit in the process.
As Norman Maclean once said, “Anything is possible in the life of a man if he lives long enough. Even maturity.”
So as in the life of everyone, we all journey through our passages. What allows us to avoid the black smoke and to make those corrective shifts in direction or intent that will deliver us from what our mothers warned us about will probably always remain a partial mystery, at least to me.
Whatever that might be, in my passage I have definitely learned the meaning of gratitude. Some years back I found myself in a romantic entanglement with a lady who once stood in the buff before me looking at her watch and said with a straight face, “Your quality time begins now.” That notice ranked right down there with the infamous epithet on a notorious tombstone: “Not only was she vengeful, she was petty.”
That was a decisive moment when my direction finder went into overdrive and whirled me into Jody’s approaching galaxy. As I said, I know the meaning of gratitude, not to mention the fullness of love. And most of all, I know I’m a lucky boy.
In my ever advancing dotage, I’m becoming more forgiving of others, especially the young who often seem to be hell bent on stealing all the cookies for themselves. I only wish to be around to see them grow into more responsible people. Unfortunately all I remember of some of my long-gone teachers was the shaking of their heads; they didn’t live long enough to see that I finally ripened.
When I went back recently to reread “The Sick Wife” by Jane Kenyon, a poem about a dying woman who sits in a parked car as her husband shops for groceries, I relearned the lesson of the profound importance of the bonds that link us all, especially to our loved ones. These are the intangible ties that hold us together as people, the mainstays of our souls.
In the words of the early American Quaker pioneer and poet William Penn, who echoed the verse in Corinthians II: “Look not to things that are seen, but to that which is unseen; for things that are seen pass away, but that which is unseen is forever.”
Thus, just as Wilder used his friend “to strike a match” off of to see his solution when he was stuck, let us all learn from one another.
And returning to our poet and musician, Leonard Cohen, let us rejoice in the chorus of his Anthem,
Ring the bell that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.